Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Healing Mass - Fr Edward Dowler

As part of a Group Mass, organized by a tutorial group of students, this homily was given by the Vice-Principal, Fr Edward Dowler.

In Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, the hero, Richard, played in the film by Leonardo di Caprio, travels to a remote part of Thailand where a group of backpackers have set up an idyllic community on a remote and spectacularly beautiful beach. Fuelled by plenty of drugs and sex, they have a wonderful time until one of their number gets badly bitten on the leg by a shark. So repulsive is his suffering to the backpackers, such an affront is it to the ideal way of life they believe themselves to have discovered that they banish him to a tent on the beach. Only Richard visits him from time to time, but otherwise the supposedly ideal hippie community has shown that it is not ideal because the only way that it can cope with sickness and suffering is by ostracizing the sick man and pitching him out of the commune.

The novel explores a fundamental feature of most, if not all societies: that those who are sick or suffering tend to be excluded from the human community but, as theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas have pointed out, the primary calling of physicians, of the Christian community and indeed of human beings when it comes to sick people is not to cure by increasingly complex technological interventions, but simply to be present to them. Thus, hospitals were originally started not to be, as is often assumed, places where sick people would necessarily get cured by increasingly complicated techological interventions. Rather, they were founded, as their name implies, to be houses of hospitality where the sick and suffering would know that others would be present to them; where a community of people would be there for them, not necessarily in order to take away their suffering, since that may well be impossible, but to help absorb that suffering by being present to the suffering person, and thus ensuring that they didn’t face their suffering alone.

That’s easy to say, but not easy to do. I’ve found that one of the hardest things I’ve had to do as a priest is visiting hospitals and simply being present. All sorts of people are typically rushing around the place, looking focussed and professional, as though they’ll really make a difference, but all I can do is just be there, perhaps bring holy communion, perhaps say a prayer, but essentially just spend some time, be present. All my activism, my solution-drivenness, my desire for visible results has to drain away as I am required to do nothing, but most of all be there, be present. But, of course, for many many sick people and in particular for those who will, for whatever reason, never get better, that gift of presence is exactly what is most important.

When Jesus comes to a suffering and needy world in the incarnation and in the Eucharist, he comes primarily just to be present. Yes, he teaches and performs healings and exorcisms, but most fundamentally, he just comes to be present in the body and the blood: present in the incarnation as the word made flesh; present in the Eucharist in the body and blood under the sacramental signs of bread and wine. And his promise is not that we will never be ill or that we will never suffer, but it is that he will carry on being present: ‘lo, I am with you always, even to the end of time.’